Friday, April 10, 2020

Easter in the Old West

In the year 325, the council of Nicea decreed that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring equinox (March 21). This means that Easter can be any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. It’s a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, but as with most Christian traditions, has plenty of pagan tradition mixed in.

Depending on your character’s religious affiliation, he or she might have celebrated the holiday with a church service, a feast, and perhaps an egg hunt. Easter also marks the end of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and reflection culminating in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

Churches typically decorate with flowers to symbolize rebirth, traditionally Easter Lilies, which are believed to have grown in the Garden of Gethsemane, the site of Jesus’ arrest by the Romans. Other Easter flowers include pussy willows, daffodils, narcissuses, and red tulips to symbolize the blood of Christ. 

In pagan celebrations, Easter was actually a celebration of fertility, often associated with the Germanic goddess Eostre, from whom the holiday’s name came. Others called it Ishtar, the resurrection of Tammuz, another pagan god. At any rate, the celebration included eggs and rabbits, long seen as symbols of fertility. German settlers brought the Easter Bunny and his eggs to America in the 1700s.

Your character may participate in an egg hunt, or may help decorate hard-boiled eggs for the town’s children to hunt. Eggs were also part of the Christian tradition because they were forbidden during Lent in Medieval Europe, making them often included in the Sunday feast. In the Catholic church, eggs are often dyed red to symbolize Christ’s blood. 

Coloring eggs has long been a part of the celebration of Spring. Scientists found two colored goose eggs, decorated with scratches, in the Fourth Century grave of a young girl. Slavic people in Europe decorate their eggs with elaborate wax coatings and dip them into color baths before removing the wax to show the patterns left behind. Romanians use beads to decorate their eggs. In many traditions, it was the woman’s job to decorate the eggs, and men were locked out of the house during this process, less they cause bad luck.

Countries around the world celebrate Easter differently. Italy holds reenactments of the Easter story in their public squares. Cyprus builds bonfires in the yards of schools and churches. Czechs and Slovacs playfully beat women with be-ribboned switches or dump water on them to bring health. The women repay the gesture with an egg treat. Greeks on the island of Corfu toss pots of water out their windows, following the Venetian practice of breaking pots in celebration. They also bake dove-shaped cakes called colompines. Some Scandinavian countries feature costumed children going door-to-door to beg for candy or flowers. 

In the UK, eggs are rolled down hills to see whose egg can roll the furthest. Sweden puts a twist on this by using a tilted roof tile to roll eggs down. If your egg gets hit, you can keep yours and the egg that hit it. In Germany, eggs are set in trees, similar to decorating a Christmas tree, and people dance around eggs set on the ground, trying to damage as few as possible. Egg tapping takes place in many countries. Each contestant taps the pointed end of his or her egg against the pointed end of their competitor’s. The egg that doesn’t break wins. In Mexico, hollowed-out eggs are filled with confetti and can be broken over someone’s head. 

One thing your character probably would not have had at Easter was a chocolate bunny. In Germany, chocolate bunnies were made and sold (and eaten) in large quantities before 1900, but a mid-1800 attempt by Whitman Chocolate to market them in America failed. It was only after 1900 that chocolate bunnies gained popularity in the United States.

Happy Easter!

J.E.S. Hays